Argentines Remember a Mother Who Joined the "Disappeared"

Times Staff Writer

Azucena Villaflor was not a woman who sought fame or notoriety. The ex-telephone operator and shopkeeper with a grade-school education ran an orderly home, put meals on the table and fretted about her four children.

For most of her 53 years, Villaflor's only major political sentiment was an enduring devotion to Eva Peron, the iconic former first lady revered by the Argentine working classes.

"My mother was nothing more than a housewife," recalled Cecilia De Vicenti, the youngest of Villaflor's children and her only daughter, now 44.

But as somber Argentines today mark the 30th anniversary of the military coup that ushered in the so-called dirty war, Villaflor is being remembered as an unlikely hero and patriot.

Villaflor is credited with founding the era's landmark and much-emulated human rights group, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose haunting protests outside the rose-hued government center downtown helped discredit a dictatorship that touted itself as an ally of freedom and liberty.

The mothers' white head scarves became a worldwide symbol of democratic resistance to an immoral regime bent on killing off its enemies -- a long list that began with leftists and trade unionists.

In an era of roaming kidnapping squads and official impunity, Villaflor and other mothers posed a simple question: Donde estan? Where are they, our sons and daughters? Where, in her case, was her son, Nestor De Vicenti?

She never lived to get an answer. Villaflor ultimately joined her son on the list of up to 30,000 people who "disappeared" between 1976 and 1983.

Nestor, Azucena's second child, was a dreamer and idealist who eschewed study of architecture to organize factory hands and assist residents of poor neighborhoods. His relatives said they never saw Nestor with a weapon, but his ideals in the turbulent 1970s echoed those of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the middle-class Argentine revolutionary who had been executed in 1967 in Bolivia.

On Nov. 30, 1976, Nestor and his girlfriend, Raquel Mangin, were arrested without incident in southern Buenos Aires. Their families never saw them again. Both were 24. They were "disappeared."

That warp of the verb "to disappear" was among the lasting legacies of South America's era of dictatorships. People didn't disappear. Someone disappeared them. In Argentina, it usually went this way: A Ford Falcon pulled to the curb. Armed plainclothes security men shoved someone into the vehicle. They disappeared him.

Villaflor made repeated inquiries at the Interior Ministry and tried to enlist the help of the military vicar, getting no further than his secretary. She asked questions. She heard the indifferent refrain that blamed the victims: Por algo sera. "It had to be for something."

She met other mothers. "This is useless," Villaflor told them one day early in 1977, as they gloomily waited their turns outside yet another ministry. "We have to go to the Plaza de Mayo," the main square in downtown Buenos Aires.

If they could not get answers from the bottom, they would seek them at the top: Gen. Jorge Rafael Videla, the leader of Argentina's military junta.

"We need to get to Videla," Villaflor told the other mothers. "We have to organize this ourselves."

The mothers met in cafes and living rooms, churches and parks. They first appeared publicly in the Plaza de Mayo on the afternoon of April 30, 1977, a Saturday in the Southern Hemisphere's autumn.

Fewer than 20 women attended that first session. They were mostly mothers, but a few were more distant relatives of the disappeared. The group eventually opted to meet on the plaza every Thursday at 3:30 p.m. The mothers adopted their trademark head scarves weeks after their first public appearance, when an excursion to a religious shrine highlighted the need to identify one another quickly in a crowd.

They gathered weekly until well after the regime crumbled in 1983. Disparaged as "las locas" -- the crazy ones -- of the plaza, the mothers received little local press early on.

They never met Videla, who eventually answered the question, Donde estan? "They are neither alive or dead. They are disappeared," he said in a television interview.

But the mothers movement generated an occasional story in the international media. The group made an effort to contact U.S. diplomats, including Cyrus Vance, then secretary of State in the Carter administration, during his trip here.

At the center of it all stood Villaflor, a stocky brunet who was always carrying a folder on her missing son, gently coaxing other mothers to come forward.

"She was a born leader, spontaneous, always with ideas, always helping," Nora de Cortinas, one of the early mother activists, told the historian Enrique Arrosagaray, who wrote a biography of Villaflor. "She was like the mother hen who watched out for all of us."

With no experience in the clandestine, the group had one ironclad rule: Only mothers could join. The members figured that what remained of Latin chivalry would prevent even the thugs of the regime from harming mothers. (It would be decades before it would come to light that the regime systematically stole newborns from imprisoned female "subversives" and placed them with "good" families while the mothers were disappeared.)

But Villaflor made an exception for a fair-skinned young man who called himself Gustavo Nino, who had approached the mothers at a church in Buenos Aires in October 1977. Nino had a familiar story: He was desperate to find out what had happened to his missing brother.

Nino became a frequent visitor to the plaza and other gatherings.

On Dec. 8, 1977, plainclothes officers kidnapped a group of mothers and their supporters on the grounds of Santa Cruz church in Buenos Aires.

Villaflor heard the news the next day. That night, her daughter recalls, she was extremely agitated. "If I tell your father, he won't let me do this anymore," Villaflor confided to her daughter.

The following morning, Dec. 10, Villaflor went out to buy a newspaper and some fish for dinner. Later, witnesses said half a dozen armed men jumped out of Ford Falcons and grabbed Villaflor at a busy corner a block and a half from her home in southern Buenos Aires.

Gustavo Nino turned out to be Alfredo Astiz -- a former Navy captain dubbed "the Blond Angel of Death." The notorious intelligence operative has been linked to numerous disappearances and awaits prosecution on human rights charges here.

Upon her arrest, Villaflor was taken to the Navy Mechanics School, an infamous torture center where Astiz worked. A survivor later reported seeing her heavily bruised and dispirited.

As time went by, Villaflor's children assumed their mother had been executed and disposed of in some anonymous pit, never to be identified.

Then, last year, forensic investigators tracking victims of the dirty war exhumed the remains of seven bodies that had been interred in a common grave in late 1977 after washing up along the Atlantic coast. DNA tests confirmed that one was Villaflor.

All were apparently hurled from military aircraft on one of the "Flights of Death" made each Wednesday.

The pilot of the flight that disposed of Villaflor probably miscalculated the distance, investigators theorize, resulting in Villaflor and the others being dropped too close to the shore. The Atlantic currents washed the remains ashore in a few days -- a rare misstep by a junta bent on leaving no trace of its deeds.

A former Argentine military officer convicted in a Spanish court has said the victims of the death flights were stripped and drugged. But one question lingers: Were they spared the terror of falling?

"To this day, I just can't support the business with the airplane," said De Vicenti, a municipal worker who is determined to ensure that her mother's story is not forgotten. "It just produces too much pain, too much."

Now a mother of three, she insisted on seeing her mother's skeletal remains before they were cremated.

"For me, it was very important to touch those bones," explained De Vicenti, whose children never met their maternal grandmother. "My mother was no longer a desaparecida.... She was no longer an anonymous person buried in a common grave. She became our mother again."

Last December, Azucena Villaflor's ashes were buried in the Plaza de Mayo, her presence one small reply to the troubling question she once posed: "Donde Estan?"

Andres D'Alessandro of The Times' Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.

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